Taylor Swift walks around with a constant expression of shock at her swell luck and good fortune. As well she should, as the pitch-challenged, confessional sweetheart is doing phenomenally well in the singing business. She doesn't do as well in the relationship business, but her prolific taste in celebrity men has served her and supermarket magazines fine. "Love is a ruthless game, unless you play it good and right," she sings on State of Grace. I would argue that Swift plays the game ruthlessly – "good and right" being adverbs open to interpretation, or even meaningless to a doe-eyed pop careerist whose open-book romantic life is grist for the mill, an attention-getting supply of gotcha-good inspiration.
Red, her fourth album, is full of big, errorless music – arena-pop that is just country enough to keep the CMT crowd happy. But even if there are very few missteps, excitement and soul are decidedly lacking. Swift's lyrical style lacks for ambition; someone like Canada's Liam Titcomb, a complete unknown in comparison, has much more of a clue how to write a poppy relationship song with wordy charisma.
The pigtailed set will enjoy the 22-year-old woman-child who giggles at the end of the plucky-cute Stay, Stay, Stay. "Before you I only dated self-indulgent takers, who took all of their problems out on me," she sings, resisting the urge to rhyme "Jake Gyllenhaal" with "darn it all" or "John Mayer" with "hey, that's not fair."
The album's catchy first single We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together is Avril-bratty, complete with a resolute girlie army on the chorus.
But beyond the adolescent stuff, the platinum-selling Kennedy-clan befriender branches out – sometimes moving in less-than-mysterious U2 ways. While State of Grace uses chiming guitars and bold dynamics, All Too Well doesn't at all try to hide its With or Without You tension-building methods. Lyrically it represents Swift's best work, involving broken promises and a wish for a virginity reinstated.
After her ungainly appearance with Stevie Nicks at the 2010 Grammys, one would understand if Swift stayed away from duets, like, forever. But proper production can do wonders, and the piano-based slowie The Last Time casts her in a flattering light indeed. Her vocal partner is Gary Lightbody, the grainy Snow Patrol vocalist who takes Swift by the hand for a well-wrought, slowly building number produced by Jacknife Lee (U2, Snow Patrol, Bloc Party).
On Red, Swift works with other new producers, including Max Martin and Shellback on We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together and 22, mediocre splashy pop that has a footloose Swift giving into her base temptations and worst inclinations: "You look like bad news, I gotta have you."
Swift's crossover to pop land is just about complete. In that sense, Red works. But for those music fans who aren't remotely interested in who Swift dates and sings about, there isn't much to this album that warrants repeated listens. There's just no "there" here.